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Milestones in the History of Quran Translations (Part 1)

Quran Translations & Steering Public Opinion Against Islam
Quran translations are supposed to provide "an authentic point of reference from which to examine the biased stereotypes of Islam to which Westerners are habitually exposed." However, unfortunately, most of these translations have not fulfilled this function. They either fail to give a precise image of Islam, or  give a negative distorted one, says Thomas Cleary, a non-Muslim Quran translator.

 

Reading Islam presents a three-part article which tackles the issue of Quran translations and their role in steering public opinion against Islam in non-Muslim communities.

 

The study starts with a historical review indicating that the libels levelled against Islam are deeply rooted in the misconceptions propagated by the first Latin Quran translations perverted on purpose out of fear that Islam would shake the established faith of Christians. It then goes on to explain some of the ways Quran translations contribute to giving a false or negative impression about Islam through either deliberate manipulation or non-deliberate mistranslations or inadequacies. Finally, it proposes some insights as to how to take action against the campaigns discrediting Islam.

 

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The Quran was translated first into Latin, then into other languages like Italian, German, and French.
The Quran was translated first into Latin, then into other languages like Italian, German, and French.
According to Hussain Khan, the first attempt of translating the Quran was into Latin. At the request of the Abbot of the Monastery of Cluny, it was made by Robert of Ketton in 1143, yet was not published until 1543. (82-108)

Afaf Shukri points out that the basic goal behind this translation was to find out the differences that shook the foundations of Christian beliefs in order to support Christianity against Islam (21-22). After this first translation, the Quran was translated into other languages like Italian, German, and French in 1547, 1616, and 1647 respectively.

Hussein Abdul-Raouf asserts that the first Latin translation "abounds in inaccuracies and misunderstandings, and was inspired by hostile intention" (19). Another Latin translation by Ludovicus Marracci was published in 1698, Colin Turner indicates that it was supplemented with quotes from Quran commentaries "carefully juxtaposed and sufficiently garbled so as to portray Islam in the worst possible light" (xii). To understand the intention of the translator, suffice it to say that the title of the introductory volume of such translation was a refutation of the Quran.

HassanMaayergi argues: "[after] the first glimpse of Islam through these translations, Europeans grew all the more aggressive in their fight against Islam. Various attacks were launched against Islamic culture and heritage" (442). What aggravated the problem was that such translations formed the foundation for a number of subsequent works.

The first English translation was that of Alexander Ross, published in 1649. There is no better evaluation of the type of work it is than the translator's statement of his goal in the introduction, "I thought good to bring it to their colours, that so viewing thine enemies in their full body, thou must the better prepare to encounter … his Alcoran" (A3).

Along the same line, Muhammad Galaa Edris, Pr ofessor of Comparative Religions, 

"As most people in the West have been brought up on misconceptions concerning Islam and the Quran; for a large part of my life, I myself was one such person".  Maurice Bucaille.
states that H. Reckendorfsays in his Hebrew translation of the Quran, "I can now stop writing and ask God's pardon for the sin I committed when I pr ofaned our sacred language and transferred to it the talk of lies and falsehood" (Abdul Aal, 78).

It should be also noted that the title of Ross' translation is "The Alcoran of Mahomet … newly Englished for the satisfaction of all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities". The title is self-explanatory, and it underlines one of the basic misconceptions prevalent in the West, namely that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the author of the Quran.

In this context, it is worth mentioning that Maurice Bucaille, an eminent French surgeon and scientist, who defends the authenticity of the Quran in his book The Bible, Quran and Science, states that some western translations meant to deliberately mistranslate the word (ummi) unlettered, referring to Prophet Muhammad in some Quranic verses. This was meant to hide the fact that it could have never been possible for an unlettered person to be the author of the Quran that encompasses meticulous scientific facts that were discovered long after his death and could not have been thought of at the time of revelation ("Reflections" 93-102).

As Bucaille states, this fact about the Prophet used to shock westerners whenever he revealed it to them. In 1734, George Sale's translation came out based on Marracci's earlier notorious work. In 1861, J. M. Rodwell's work provided a further example of a writer "gunning for Islam" (Turner xii).

The wide circulation of these early unfair translations, essentially predetermined to discredit Islam, led to embedding distorted facts in the western mentality that have now become like axioms, despite the appearance of a few subsequent somewhat better translations by non-Muslims. Bucaille stresses the existence of mainstream inaccurate ideas that brainwash westerners stating, "as most people in the West have been brought up on misconceptions concerning Islam and the Quran; for a large part of my life, I myself was one such person".

He adds:

As I grew up, I was always taught that 'Mahomet' was the author of the Quran; I remember seeing French translations bearing this information. I was invariably told that the 'author' of the Quran simply compiled… stories of sacred history taken from the Bible…, while setting forth the principles and rules of the religion he himself had founded.

Besides, at the International Seminar on Islam in Paris, held under the auspices of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Bucaille explains:

When I started my in-depth research on the reality of Islam, for the first time, I started to study its scripture, the Quran, and I was obliged to use translations done by various Islamologues or orientalists. Alas, the script under these conditions was not self-explicative, and I remember having found in several translations of the same paragraph such differences that it was evident that these interpretations were due to translators and their commentaries, often added to the text. Later on having acquired the knowledge of the Arabic language, enabling me to read the Quran in the original text, I … discerned the evident desire to camouflage or to willfully change the meaning, evidently in order to adapt the text to a personal point of view. ("On translation" 10-13)

Besides, testifying to the deliberate mistranslation of the Quran by some Orientalists to confirm the misconceptions about Islam taught to students at schools, Husain Abdul Raouf, a British convert to Islam states:

Reading Rodwell's translation of the Quran had specially fixed these preconceptions into my subconscious. Rodwell had purposely mistranslated some parts of the Quran and distorted its meanings, thus turning the holy book into a mass of unintelligible words altogether different from the original version. It was not till after having contacted the 'Islamic Society' in London and having read a true translation of the Quran did I know the truth.

Similarly, Muhammad John Webster, another convert to Islam, explains that before

 The early non-Muslim translations distorted the spirituality of the Quran and damaged the concepts of Islam.
 being a Muslim, he got a Quran translation by a non-Muslim out of curiosity. Then, he explains:

… I had hardly finished the introduction of the book, when I immediately closed the book. For the translator… used such an abusive and defamatory language about the Quran right in the introduction that it meant there was no sense in reading a book of that sort… I took the matter more seriously, and when I went to the city of Perth in western Australia a couple of weeks later, I visited the grand library of the city and queried whether there was a translation of the Quran rendered by Muslims. They found a translation of that sort and gave it to me. No words could define the emotions that began to stir in the depths of my soul when I opened it and read the first chapter in it, the chapter (surah) called "Al-Fatiha" (Why did they become Muslims?,N 23, 1995)

The early non-Muslim translations distorted the spirituality of the Quran and damaged the concepts of Islam. Unfortunately, as Sir Edward Denson Ross asserts in his introduction to George Sales' translation:

[for] many centuries the acquaintance which the majority of Europeans possessed of Mohammedanism was based almost entirely on distorted reports of fanatical Christians which led to dissemination of a multitude of gross calumnies. What was good in Mohammedanism was entirely ignored, and what was not good, in the eyes of Europe, was exaggerated or misinterpreted. (7)

Due to the problems of the early non-Muslim translations, the twentieth century witnessed the publication of a plethora of Muslim translations. The axiomatic supposition is that these translations should have provided a genuine representative image of the spirit of Islam and an accurate version of its scripture. However, with some of these translations, further complications emerged.

First, some controversial translations are those influenced by scientific rationalism like those of Ahmad Zidan and Dina Zidan (1979), Muhammad Asad (1980), and Ahmad Ali (1984). They intend to interpret any references to miracles in the Quran on rational, or figurative bases as they reject the idea of miracles.

For example, while Muslims believe that Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) was saved by God's grace from the fire in which he was plunged by some of the disbelievers, Asad argues that the reference in the Quran is "apparently an allegorical allusion to the fire of persecution which Abraham had to suffer" (496).

Similarly, he believes that Jesus Christ's miraculous talk in his cradle is "a metaphorical allusion to the prophetic wisdom which was to inspire Jesus from a very early age" (73).

Similar tendencies are perceived in Asad's translation and the other similar translations in reference to the other miracles of Christ, Moses, Solomon, and so on, (peace be upon them all). Unfortunately, these views reflect false refutation of basic mainstream beliefs of the majority of Muslims who fully acknowledge these miracles.

Second, some translations project sectarian views that differ from common Muslim beliefs. In Shiite translations, for example that of S. V. Mir Ahmad Ali (1964), the basic concern is with the Shiites' imposed interpretations on some general verses that they mean to make particularly referring to Ali, Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, and his household (may God be pleased with them).

On the basis of these interpretations, they support their tendency to confer unbounded glory on Ali. Thus, such translators digress from the mainstream understanding of the verses in some places to reflect their own doctrinal biases rather than give an accurate presentation of the Muslims' scripture.

Third, the most serious distortions by far, however, emerged on account of the translations by the Indian "Qadiyani" and "Ahmadiyyah" communities. To serve their own needs, they marred their translations with twisted verses. Similarly, they disseminate ideas that contradict basic Muslim beliefs.

A prime example is their claim that Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) was crucified and was not raised alive to God, as Neal Robinson points out (266). They meant to give support, on the basis of such perverted translations, to the claims of their leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad that he was the Promised Messiah and Mahdi.

The dissemination of such doctrines that drift far away from common Muslim beliefs did severe injustice to Islam. Sadly, in these works lie the utmost danger, even more than those by orientalists. Being supposedly by Muslim translators, their distortion and misguidance sail under the banner of Islam. However, as the translation committee of the "Majestic Quran" state, they "often contain interpretations which are eccentric and speculative and do not reflect the mainstream understanding of the text, which most readers wish to know" (VIII).

Apart from the aforementioned works, some other moderate translations by Muslims appeared. However, it is important to stress that translations are not always a reliable source to judge Islam. Any translator brings to his work the beliefs, inferences, and doctrines that are the substance of personal biases, theological leaning, and even tactical scheming. Hence, the only criterion for judgment is the text in Arabic. It should be borne in mind that translations, no matter how accurate, can hardly be objective.

Works Cited:


Abdul Aal, Afaf. "Calumnies Against Islam. The Jews Translated the Quran into Hebrew to Realize Balfour Promise". Nesf Ad-Donia Magazine 29 January 2006: 78.

Abdul Raouf, Hussein. Quran Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis. Surrey: Routledge, Curzon, 2001.

Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Quran: Translated and Explained. Gibraltar: Dar Al-Andalus, 1980.

Bucaille, Maurice, "Reflections on mistaken ideas spread by orientalists through mistranslations of the Quran". Proc. of the Symposium on Translations of the Meanings of the Holy Quran, March 1986, Istanbul: IRCICA.

___. "On Translation of the Holy Quran." The Muslim World League Journal 13 (1986): 10-13.

Khan, Mofakhar Hussain. "English Translations of the Holy Quran: A Bio-Bibliographic Study". Islamic Quarterly 30 (1986): 82-108.

Maayergi, Hassan, "An Academy for Translating the Exegesis of the Holy Quran". Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 5 (1984): 442.

Ozbec, Ali, Nureddin Uzuno?lu, Tevfik R. Topuzo?lu, and Mehmet Maksuto?lu, trans. The Majestic Qur’an: An English Rendition of Its Meanings. Eds. Abdal Hakim Murad, Mostafa.

Robinson, Neal. "Sectarian and Ideological Bias in Muslim Translations of the Qur'an". Islam and Christian Muslim Relations 8.3 (1997): 266.

Shukri, Afaf Ali, "On the Translation of the Meanings of the Quran". Majallat Al-Shariah wal Dirasat Al-Islamiyyah 42 (Sept. 2000): 17-61.

Sales, George. The Koran, Commonly Called Alcoran of Mohammed. London: C. Akers, 1734.

Turner, Colin. The Quran: A New Interpretation. Surrey: Curzon, 1997.

 

 

This article was first published on www.quranicstudies.com and here published with kind permission from the authors and with slight editorial changes.
Dr. Ibrahim Saleh holds a PhD in political communication & national development. A Fulbright scholar and senior media expert in the "Media Sustainability Index (MSI)" in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), he is also Chair of the Journalism Education and Research Section in the International Association for Media & Communication Research (IAMCR), and the Global 'Partner Organization' of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, Media Literacy Education Clearinghouse. Saleh is also the editor of the special issue on Media ; Religion, in the Journal of Arab Media ; Muslim Media Research (JAMMR), and a scholar of Quranic studies.

Dahlia Sabry is a member of the teaching and translation staff at the Language and Translation Center at the Academy of Arts in Egypt. Project Manager of the English/Arabic Section at Arabotic Translation Ltd, she also works as a freelance translator for a number of international organizations. She is also a researcher in comparative linguistics, translation studies, Sufism, Quranic studies, interfaith issues, and comparative religion.

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